Penn State, Franklin still seeking WPIAL talent
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UNIVERSITY PARK — When Jesse James took his official recruiting visit to Penn State in December 2011, roommates Miles Dieffenbach, Mike Hull and Jesse Della Valle hosted him.
How could anyone have known then that, some 27 months later, the four of them would represent the entire Pittsburgh-area contingent on scholarship on the Nittany Lions roster?
An infusion of additional Western Pennsylvania talent figures to be on the way in the coming years.
Fifth-year seniors Dieffenbach (Fox Chapel), Hull (Canon-McMillan) and Della Valle (Shaler) join junior James (South Allegheny) as the only Penn State scholarship players who are alumni of WPIAL schools.
“What there may not be in quantity,” Lions defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said, “there certainly is in quality of player and quality of person. They all embody what I consider to be the great assets of Western PA guys.”
Linebacker Hull joins guard Dieffenbach as experienced players who might be the biggest leaders on their respective side of the ball this season.
Della Valle was the Lions' primary punt returner last season and became more of a contributor on defense. The 6-foot-7, 257-pound James is a future NFL prospect, the most productive player in 2013 at what is the deepest position on the team, tight end.
“You look at those kids — Pittsburgh's been good to us,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “And we want to continue that.”
Over the past eight seasons, Penn State's success has been aided by significant contributions from WPIAL graduates — Paul Posluszny, Sean Lee, Justin King, Derek Moye, Stefan Wisniewski, A.Q. Shipley and Anthony Morelli, to name a few.
But when spring practice begins Monday, Hull, Dieffenbach and James are the only three on the roster who were recruited and offered scholarships while at WPIAL schools.
“It's actually crazy when you think about it,” James said. “I'm sure the new coaches are going to get back to recruiting that area.”
To be fair, the Pittsburgh presence on the Lions' roster goes beyond Hull, Dieffenbach and James. Della Valle earned a scholarship after enrolling as a walk-on. Mt. Lebanon wide receiver Troy Apke signed a national letter of intent last month.
Also, there are six non-scholarship players — Blackhawk's Cole Chiappialle, Belle Vernon's Adam Cole, North Allegheny's Gregg Garrity, Franklin Regional's Carter Henderson, Langley's Tyrone Smith and Pine-Richland's Austin Whipple.
All but Whipple and Henderson (who redshirted) appeared in at least one game last season, almost exclusively on special teams.
Franklin's “dominate the state” recruiting mantra, combined with a staff that includes WPIAL alumni Shoop (Riverview) and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith (Gateway) give reason to believe Pittsburgh will be more heavily represented on future Penn State teams.
“When I think of Pittsburgh,” Franklin said, “I think blue-collar, hard-nosed, appreciative of opportunities, high expectations and work ethic. All those types of things — really what this country was kind of built on.”
High school coaches say Lions coaches have been ubiquitous in the area since Franklin was hired.
“We're real excited about that, the whole ‘Dominate the state' slogan,” Hull said. “He's going to recruit the heck out of Pittsburgh.”
It only has been 10 weeks, but there are no tangible results yet. The consensus among the national recruiting websites is that Penn State has a top-10 national 2015 class at this juncture after securing four 4-star recruits among its seven commitments already. None, though, are from the WPIAL.
After PSU almost inexplicably signed none of the state's top 10 Rivals.com prospects in 2014 — Franklin said, “that's crazy to me”— the Nittany Lions already have gotten commitments from four of the commonwealth's top 10-ranked 2015 prospects.
None of the other players in top 10 have committed anywhere yet, and Penn State has offered scholarships to the two of that group from the WPIAL — Baldwin's Sterling Jenkins and Central Valley's Jordan Whitehead.
The only three WPIAL juniors who have verbally committed to a FBS college all have chosen Pitt — although none of those three had a scholarship offer from PSU.
Shoop said the staff has placed “a tremendous emphasis” on re-connecting with Pittsburgh-area high school football.
“We won't just recruit someone just because he's from Western Pennsylvania, but we certainly want to make sure we do our due diligence (here),” Shoop said.
“We want to serve the state's high school coaches and serve the state's high school programs,” he added. “That's important to us. We are the state university, and this state has been able to produce a lot of great, great high school football players and a tremendously rich football history on both the east and the west side of the state.”
Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.
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